How To Break Unhealthy Rituals.

When it comes to mental illness, specifically Anorexia Nervosa, there are various unhealthy rituals to look out for.

Habits and rituals give structure to our lives. For many, they provide a safety blanket for us to hide behind when things start to feel rough. Having daily rituals can keep us within routine, help us remember daily tasks and even help those around us. But, they can quickly become obsessions. For issues such obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders, unhealthy rituals can be debilitating and even life altering!

From my own experience with anorexia, I know that the majority of unhealthy rituals are kept alive by fear and anxiety. They’re draining, time-consuming and can dictate a number of things; what we do, where we go, time frames and how we feel! Sometimes the only way I was able to quiet the voice in my mind was to take part in distraction and self-soothing

What happens when mental illness causes us to develop unhealthy rituals and how do we begin to overcome them? 

**Please note that for those going through an active eating disorder, or having recovered, this post may contain triggering material. Read at your own discretion, but I take no offense to clicking away.

Image from cottonbro studio

What are unhealthy rituals and how can they consume us?

Unhealthy rituals, also called obsessive-compulsions, are often repetitive actions that people use in response to distressing or unwanted thoughts. Some use them as a means to reduce their anxiety or to prevent an undesired outcome. From my own personal experience with anorexia nervosa, unhealthy rituals were a huge part of keeping the disorder happy. Quite often I would find myself doing strange things just to prevent weight gain or stop myself from consuming food

Here are just some examples of unhealthy habits I experienced when living with anorexia nervosa. 

Body checking.  

This is one I still struggle with, even two years into recovery. I don’t own a digital scale, therefore can’t weigh myself. Instead, I find myself body checking in other ways. Sometimes I’m able to stop and gently bring myself to the present, telling myself I don’t need to do this. Other times it happens subconsciously. 

Cutting food into tiny pieces.  

In the early days of my anorexia during my teens I would rip food into tiny pieces. Now I deconstruct food where I can so that I can eat them separately. That means eating each part of a sandwich or wrap using a fork and knife so that nothing is eaten together.

Measuring food.  

I wasn’t big on the measuring in my early anorexia experience, but this time something clicked within me. At one point I was weighing out cereal to exactly the recommended grams or less, and even weighing things like fruit. I’ve since given this up completely and the only food I weigh is for my cat.  

Eating at the same time, in the same place every day.  

When I was younger strict mealtimes were a thing I was obsessed with. If food wasn’t out by five thirty PM, I would have a meltdown. Now I’m much better at adapting to change because when you’re an adult, life doesn’t always mean you can eat at the same time every day.

I try to stick to a routine as much as possible, and I know being out of routine can mean forgetting to eat or not having time to eat. 

Weighing myself multiple times a day.

There was a point where I would weigh myself multiple times a day just to make sure I was in control. Even if I hadn’t eaten or drank anything, I still insisted on weighing myself. I haven’t stepped on a scale in nearly three full years, and I can still remember the fear I would feel not knowing. Looking back, I certainly wasn’t the one with the steering wheel. 

Other common examples of unhealthy rituals might be things such as counting, repeating words or phrases, obsessive hand washing, organising items in a certain way, obsessive cleaning or even the constant need to be reassured by others. 

How to know if you have a problem with unhealthy rituals. 

If a ritual or habit creates any of the following scenarios you may have an issue;  

  • The habit is so important that you can’t function without it.
  • It’s hard to go for long periods without feeling an intense compulsion to perform that habit.
  • You seem to be thinking about your habit for much of the day.

But how can they impact our lives?

They can be time consuming and severely interfere with your life.

When you’re consumed by unhealthy rituals, it can take up a large portion of your time. Not only that but it can completely hijack your concentration. This can lead to a loss in productivity, poor work performance, disruption to your daily activities and strained relationships

They can cause emotional distress. 

Unhealthy rituals often contribute to a vicious cycle of compulsion and obsession, and while they can temporarily reduce anxiety, they only contribute to the distress felt. From personal experience, it feels like being trapped in whirlpool that you can’t break out of. To break the feeling of anxiety and frustration, you need to carry out the rituals, but by carrying them out you continue to add to those feelings. And so on.

They can cause relationship conflicts. 

Unhealthy rituals and compulsions can drive wedges between even the most well rounded relationship. Between being unable to convey your convulsions to an outsider, and how difficult it can be to accommodate them, our loved ones can become very frustrated. They’re difficult for the sufferer to understand, so imagine how hard it must be from the outside looking in? My partner once said that it felt like he was in a relationship with my addictions, be it weighing myself or my obsession with numbers. For a long time he resented everything I was going through and, by association, me. 

They can be isolating. 

Quite often it’s difficult to be around others when dealing with unhealthy compulsions. It becomes much easier to isolate yourself and stay away from potential triggers, and the judgemental looks of others. 

Other issues.

  • Physical issues such as skin conditions, infection and irritation. 
  • Co-morbid mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders

How can we challenge unhealthy rituals & compulsions?

Before we begin it’s important that I reassure you of just how difficult it can be to give up on unhealthy rituals and compulsions. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and may take several months and even years. For some, the compulsions may never go away completely. 

With that in mind, here are just some of the ways to work towards overcoming unhealthy rituals, alongside some advice to remember. 

The first steps and some important reminders. 

First of all, it’s important that you acknowledge the unhealthy rituals. 

Without taking the time to recognise and accept them as a problem, how can you expect to overcome them? During this time, remind yourself that these rituals or compulsions aren’t serving your well-being, and that they need to be changed. 

Seek professional help. 

For some, professional help may be needed. This is especially true if for more severe or persistent compulsions, or for those suffering from a mental health condition. Not sure what mental health professional you need? This is usually a counsellor or therapist, and even better if they’ve specialised in your specific issue. 

They will be able to provide you with tailored guidance and support as you continue on your journey. As you work alongside a professional, they will encourage you to explore what might be triggering the unhealthy rituals, and how best to move forward.

In regard to triggers, these may be in the form of situations, feelings, thoughts and even memories. 

Discover alternative coping mechanisms. 

It’s important that as you move away from unhealthy rituals, that you find healthier coping mechanisms. Without them, it’s impossible to break free! 

Look for alternative activities to focus on, such as writing, drawing or a form of exercise you enjoy. It could even be something as simple as a relaxation technique that helps quiet your mind when you’re feeling on edge. 

Build a supportive network. 

It’s important that you surround yourself with those who will support you through this journey. This could include friends, family, co-workers and even support group members. Not everyone will understand, but they can still be there to support you during the challenge!

While I was going through eating disorder treatment I went to a support group every Wednesday at the clinic, and one on the last Tuesday of every month. While everyone there was going through their own issues, we all had a similar understanding. I personally found them very helpful, but also quite triggering, therefore I eventually removed myself. It’s important to remember that while support groups can be very insightful and helpful, they can also be detrimental. Never stay in a situation where you’re left feeling more triggered than when you entered. 

Practice self-care throughout!

Self-care is extremely important, especially if you’re engaging in therapy and exploring potential triggers. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating enough, drinking water and engaging in activities you enjoy. And that’s just the basics! Allow your battery to recharge without feeling guilty! 

Stay persistent!

Rome wasn’t built in a day. As I stated before, change will not happen overnight and you need to stay persistent! It can feel like an up-hill battle at times, but remember that recovery is never linear. No matter who you are. It ebbs and flows like a river, therefore you should expect to fail. But always get back up again! 

Use positive self-talk.

Challenge the negative thoughts and beliefs with positive affirmations! You CAN do this, you ARE worthy. Let no one, including yourself, convince you otherwise. 

Here are just a few to get you started. 

  • I am in control of my thoughts and habits!
  • I resist the compulsive urges.
  • I can overcome these obsessions. 
  • I can control these behaviours!
  • I can change! 
  • I will stop letting these unhealthy rituals control me. 
  • I trust that everything will be okay. 
  • I am strong and resilient. 
  • I trust in my ability. 
  • I am enough, exactly as I am! 

Methods for overcoming unhealthy rituals.

Postpone the ritual.

Let’s not beat around the bush. If you struggle with unhealthy rituals, then you know how difficult it can be to say no to them. And while we will talk more about this earlier, the chances of you completely stopping a ritual cold turkey are very slim. Instead, what I was encouraged to do during eating disorder recovery, was to postpone a ritual as much as possible.

Let’s take weighing as an example. I wasn’t about to let my husband throw away the scales the moment I entered recovery. Instead, we agreed that it would be placed somewhere out of sight, therefore out of mind. Each time the urge to weigh arose, I was encouraged to postpone it. First for fifteen minutes, then thirty and, eventually, an hour.

I would be lying if I said this was easy. The first few times I tried this method, I struggled deeply with not being able to weigh myself. But eventually and as I progressed through treatment, things became easier. And, in January twenty-twenty, my husband and I took a hammer to my set of scales.

I’ve not weighed myself since.

Change an aspect of the ritual. 

My therapist and I came up with a method that would later tackle how I dealt with food. In the past I cut food into tiny pieces to the point where it took me over thirty minutes to eat one meal. As my recovery marched on, however, I put more thought into what I was doing. Instead of allowing myself to cut up the food, I choose one thing to cut up. Eventually, I was able to stop cutting food up unnecessarily. And now I can eat a slice of pizza in the way it’s meant to be eaten; by hand and with the sauce all over my fingers.

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Add a consequence. 

Similar to adding a pound into the swear jar every-time you drop an ‘F’ bomb, you can add a consequence to performing an unhealthy ritual. By no means does this allow you to use this as a punishment, instead think of something like putting a pound into a jar.

Here are some examples.

  • Call a support person.
  • Put money into a savings account.
  • You have to buy your partner a snack or coffee next time you’re in town.

It can be hard to think of things that don’t play off as a punishment. But it’s important to remember that we don’t want to punish ourselves, instead we want to discourage ourselves. That’s why putting money into a jar or a savings account, or calling someone is a considered a ‘light-heartened‘ consequence. We’re doing something to benefit ourselves, but it’s still not something we necessarily want to do.

Choose not to do the ritual.

As time marches on and you continue on your journey, eventually the time will come when you feel capable of leaving the unhealthy ritual behind. You can either replace it with a healthier one, or nothing at all.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, this is very much the last stage of overcoming an unhealthy ritual. If you can’t manage to avoid an unhealthy ritual in the beginning, please don’t feel disheartened. With perseverance a time will come when stopping a ritual completely becomes easier.

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80 comments

  1. I do maybe a bit too much body checking. I’ve always had low self esteem, but especially after having kids. Thanks for these reminders!

  2. I really love these tips, I think particularly applying the Yes/No technique might be quite helpful to use against my OCD so when things return to a bit of normality I might give it a try with a few of my daily habits! I love the sound of Fabulous too, never heard of it before but I think it’ll need to check it out! xx

  3. These are great tips. In my younger years I definitely was guilty of doing many of these behaviors often. I had no idea the damage I was going with those behaviors. Thank you for sharing ways to retrain the brain to be healthier!

  4. It’s so strange because reading this makes you think that we should all know what is right or wrong and not have any of these habits but we are so busy in everyday life that we forget to pay more attention. Thanks for amazing article.

  5. thank you so much for sharing this with us! i find this super helpful since i myself have a ton of rituals that i want out of my life

  6. I need to try Fabulous again! I downloaded it once and it looked like it was going to be so helpful, but my phone at the time was bloated and couldn’t handle the app. Thank you for the reminder!!
    I love the yes/no technique from your therapist… Establishing new habits can be so daunting…I imagine starting out super small and going from there is so much less scary and really gets the ball rolling.

  7. I still have it so we can weigh the cats but I hate having it here. I’ve been avoiding, and failing, stepping off and on it over the last few days and it’s not doing my mental health any good.
    I know I need to let go but at a time like this it feels like the only thing I have to hold on to.

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s so hard to get back into normal eating after something like that. I know from attending the gym and body building years ago just how much your perception of your body can change, and not in a good way.

  9. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. It is very difficult but I’m trying to keep up the momentum, even during this pandemic.
    Hope you’re staying safe and well! x

  10. i never had an eating disorder but this can be used in any circumstance. bad habits can be changed one step at a time

  11. I never had eating disorder but some other issue. Habits often go by unnoticed by ourselves — which is sort of the point. They are automatic behaviours directed by unconscious thoughts. When a particular behaviour is carried out repeatedly, the brain figures “This is done often enough, guess I’ll put it on auto and leave it in the background.” In doing so, there is one less thing to think about as you go through your day, your brain has reduced the cognitive load by making something a habit.

  12. This is a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing! Thank you for sharing your experiences with an eating disorder, I can’t imagine what that must have been like to deal with. But I’m glad you’re on the other side, living a happy a fulfilling life! I have many bad habits, mostly stemming from the anxiety. I’ll definitely be doing using your suggestions here, especially the yes/no one.

  13. This is so interesting! I never even think about these! I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I do find myself having an unhealthy relationship with food time – to – time. I loved reading about how to get out of unhealthy habits.

  14. Bad habits can be changed with little steps. it takes around 2 weeks to form a new habit or to get rid of a bad one, so it’s important to always tell ourselves that we can do it, even if that means counting those 14 days.

  15. incrediby interesting article – this was very insightful for me as I didn’t know much about this. Thanks for sharing – I appreciate the increased awareness you gave me.

  16. I’ve never suffered from an eating disorder myself but I do have friends who have and do struggle. It was both informative but also heartbreaking to see all the different ways your mind can focus on your body and on food. Thanks for posting!

  17. I can’t believe that people are suffering with these unhealthy rituals. weighing yourself every single time can also be so stressful for your part. habits are really hard to break, but with the correct mindset, it is possible.

  18. Great post! Inever attention to this. but now i will aware for this. Thanks for sharing this post.

  19. It is always wonderful to read your posts. I am sure your blog is helping so many people. It is always so tough to break a bad habit, requires immense will power. Great tips.

  20. Thank you so much for sharing that app. I have been looking for an app like this for the past year to help me break some of my own bad habits. Which have been getting even worse during COVID-19. I think the Fabulous app will help, so thank you! Best, Lynda

  21. I had a friend that when she lost her mom she started developing habits that were “healthy” but taken to extremes. THe first thing we noticed was her eating habits became obsessive. Im thankful to have come across your post, I think it’ll be a helpful tool for people in the future.

  22. I never linked how you eat could be an unhealthy habit! I dealt with a lot of issues with eating after I Did a bodybuilding competition. Once I started actually eating normal again I couldn’t stop body shaming when my body was just getting back to normal!

  23. I am a culprit of unhealthy rituals from what I have read. These are things I do most of the time without realising they are unhealthy. I need to follow your tips and make a change for the better. Thank you Nyxies.

  24. What a great read, love the layout of your post. After having two kids, my body has changed, have to work a little harder but make sure they are within reason.

  25. Great article. We can all probably use help breaking bad habits. Thanks so much.

  26. I don’t have an eating disorder but it seems that eating disorders are a lot more complex than I originally thought. It is true what you say about habits, they are hard wired into our brains and we definitely need to create new pathways to good habits.

  27. Brilliant post. Any bad habit is hard to break but one’s that are attached to something like Anorexia I’d imagine to be much harder because they are so deeply ingrained and about survival.

  28. Thank you so much for reading Britt. I struggle with counting calories, especially when it’s on packaging. Numbers are a massive trigger for me but so hard to get away from in today’s society.

  29. I’ve now stopped weighing completely because it was becoming too much. I’m going off 2 pairs of jeans that have remained consistent through recovery.
    Thank you for reading. x

  30. Thank you for reading. I used to be so rigid about my meal times but I’ve had to let that go over time. Especially now when time seems to have little meaning.

  31. Thanks for reading Jenny. I’m still trying to break my unhealthy habits but, as you say, the hinder us in ways we can only see when we let them go.
    I hope you’re keeping well. x

  32. Thank you so much for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed it and it helped you to come to terms with a few things in your own life. x

  33. We all have a vice at some point in our life, and breaking bad habits isn’t easy. I totally agree with having a meal routine; it makes the world of difference.

  34. Thanks for this. I realized a lot of this after reading this topic. Need to change my eating habits before its too late.

  35. This sounds with hard to follow especially unhealthy rituals are also old-habits. But for the sake of good health and longer life, then it must be break.

  36. This is a really valuable post. I developed many unhealthy habits over the years from obsessively counting and tracking calories to measuring myself daily. I found that the calorie counting was easily overlooked with the shift in society to count calories as a positive weight loss technique (look at sites like MyFitnessPal).

  37. Unhealthy rituals are often overlooked as the culprit. Ive made some minor lifestyle adjustments in the past few months and the results have been so satisfying.

  38. Great tips you’ve got there! Sometimes, it so hard to break bad habits or rituals. It needed a lot of discipline. So yeah, I’m quite guilty.

  39. These are great tips to break unhealthy habits of all sorts. Just getting used to accept change with the yes/know. The though of trying any of those things makes me cringe, yet I suppose you learn to get used to it and therefore less resistant to change.

  40. Measuring, myself and my food, has always been a pain point for me. I mostly stopped but sometimes still find myslef stepping on the scale daily and I know it is a horrible habit and makes me feel terribnle.

  41. I do a lot of these things even without having a disorder. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be for someone whose struggle is so much worse than mine. I am glad there are places to find good support now and hope that people are able to get to that help.

  42. I do have them healthy rituals like using the scale a lot even though I know I am on my period. And I tend to get more pounds during my it.But it’s something that I can’t avoid and I need to avoid especially at this time of quarantine.

  43. This is helpful for everyone, it’s always good to take stock in rituals that may not be best for us. I loved all this information and I appreciate you compiling it.

  44. i love the layout of this post!!! it’s so hard to break out of rituals sometimes!!!

  45. This is helpful for those going through this for sure. I do get cranky if meals aren’t at a proper time though. I get hangry. So I try to always eat around 5 PM, but I can wait until 6 PM without getting moody.

  46. I don’t struggle with an eating disorder, and I have an on-again, off-again relationship with my scale. But I do body check and didn’t even realize it was an unhealthy habit. Thank you for making me aware! I love the ideas on breaking unhealthy rituals in here — I will try some!

  47. My husband can be very structured with meal time. He gets cranky if he has to wait too late to eat lol. I definitely dont check really how much I’m eating and things like that but with the kids I do try to keep a snack schedule so they don’t eat us out of house and home.

  48. Although I don’t have an eating disorder, I can definitely relate to what you’re saying about unhealthy habits and rituals. It’s something we spoke about in my recent group CBT last year. I’ve definitely had my share of unhealthy habits to help with my anxiety which, in hindsight, were hindering me instead! Great post x

  49. Wow…. i have just realized a lot about myself in this post that I dont think I have ever really realized before.

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